Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band brings salvation to Jazz Fest


by Daniel Emberg

photo by Cheyenne Rae

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band will be hitting the stage in an hour, and the Rev is seated at a picnic table working on his band’s setlist for the night. Turning his formidable facial follicles across the street toward the King’s Head Pub, he smiles at the action on the patio. “You know,” he says, “It’s a lot of fun, but I don’t drink so I’m not much for bars except when we’re playing. You know that store Claire’s at the mall, with the earrings and stuff? If they had music there, that’s where I would hang out, is Claire’s. I just want to be where the music is.”

The statement is made with no disrespect to the bar world: Reverend Peyton and his crew just want to play wherever people are ready to hear good songs. Among the most popular and proficient finger-picking guitarists around, he has worked extremely hard to make it so. Peyton’s steadfast commitment to the craft stems at least in part from having his musical dreams temporarily derailed by problems with his fretting hand as a teenager.

“I didn’t play for almost two years and they told me I was never gonna play again. The doctor said, ‘Son, find something else to do.’ I was able to have surgery and fix it, but before I figured that out it was a hard road, man.” A week after that surgery, he met a woman named Breezy who has since become his wife and bandmate; in fact, the Rev credits Breezy with giving him the confidence to keep working toward a music career and joining him in the endeavour.

“She started talking about playing washboard….and man, it didn’t take her long to get good. People think, oh washboard, how hard could it be?” continues Peyton, “but it’s a different thing to just be able to play it to say you play it, and to be a master at it, to really be good.”

Explaining why just the two of them with a drummer often sound like a larger group, the Rev offers, “She has such a way of playing in our band that it almost fills the same space as a rhythm guitar. Between my thumb playing bass and my fingers playing the lead…and the drums, no one misses anything.”

Peyton fashioned his distinctive guitar style through an obsession with old country blues records. In fact, two years ago the band released Peyton On Patton, a full album of their versions of Charlie Patton songs recorded into one microphone in a single day. As the Rev explains, “When I was younger, man, I was completely obtuse about music. If it wasn’t country blues, then it better be something similar because I wasn’t into it otherwise.”

Pointing to a tour with Flogging Molly as a major touchstone in learning to appreciate other styles of music, Peyton says, “[Now] I just really appreciate good songs because they are a gift….you can get to be awesome on an instrument by just spending a lot of time with it….but to write a good song is the toughest thing in music.”

How, then, does Reverend Peyton go about his most difficult musical task?

“It almost always starts with the music. Like, I come up with the music but sometimes the music will sing words to me.” By way of example he mentions the song “Devils Look Like Angels”: “I made up the music to that song ten years ago, and that song just sort of sat until it sang words to me.” The song would become the lead single for the band’s 2012 album Between the Ditches, and anyone who has not seen the official video (which was banned in several European countries) would be well advised to check it out.

Summarizing his approach to songcraft, Peyton explains, “I’d rather wow ’em with the guitar than with the words,” continuing that he prefers that anyone in the audience be able to understand and sing along with his words.

When showtime hit, the band took little time working themselves and the crowd into a frenzy with “That Train Song”, which set the tone for a high-tempo show that had adults young and old dancing and marvelling at just how hard the band plays.

Over the steady chug of tour manager-turned-drummer Ben Bussell, the Rev thunderously picks, plucks, and slides along custom 16-gauge strings on a battery of guitars including (among others) a mid-1930s National, a three-string cigar box unit, and a custom piece including parts salvaged from the metal roof and wood siding of a barn.

One would never guess Bussell just started playing with them a few months ago, and playing anywhere from 200-250 shows a year has allowed the Rev and Breezy to hone their personal chemistry into something which translates wonderfully to the stage—the whole band drips swagger, but in the charming sense rather than cocky. They really just look delighted to know people have come to share in their fun.

As fiercely as the frontman goes at his guitar, Breezy is an equally emphatic washboard player. According to the Rev, “[S]he has to play stainless because otherwise she wears through ’em too fast….She can take a galvanized board and destroy it in one show.” Tonight, instead of shredding through the metal, Breezy waits for the encore (“Two Bottles of Wine”a frenetic 2007 zydeco tune co-written with Jason Webley) to delight the dance floor by setting her washboard on fire.

In between the opener and closer mentioned, the band winds its way through selections from a catalogue that proves Peyton to be quite adept at what he considers the most difficult job in music: newer crowd-pleasers such as “Big Blue Chevy ’72” and “Clap Your Hands” are interwoven with old favourites like “Them Old Days Are Gone” and the charming “Mama’s Fried Potatoes.” After witnessing two sets with nary a lull, the crowd is firmly behind them and the encore was certainly earned rather than imposed.

Those lucky enough to have caught their two-night stint in Winnipeg are surely glad the Big Damn Band found their way to the King’s Head and will be talking their friends into joining for the night, even if the show is at…you know, that place in the mall with earrings and stuff.

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